Living an Environmentally Conscious Jewish Life

The Jewish spiritual tradition offers ways to think and act in harmony with nature and for the benefit of the environment.

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Avodah also means prayer, and through our prayer book we get most powerfully in touch with the Creator and with Creation. In the daily morning liturgy God is called "the one who in goodness every day renews the work of Creation"--a renewal in which we have been made co-partners. We are warned not to turn away and serve false gods (idols, or limitless growth perhaps, or pop stars and sports "heroes?"), lest nature turn against us and we "be speedily evicted from the good land God gives us" (second paragraph of Sh'ma, from Deut. 11). The entire liturgy cultivates our humility before God and the world, something this ecological age desperately needs to learn. Prayer/avodah is just what the Doctor-on-high ordered.

And as "service," avodah can be all about helping others and the community by adopting a more ecologically conscious lifestyle. We can best be "of service" to those in poverty or in developing countries by using less, and helping them attain better lifestyles in less destructive ways. We can best be "of service" to future generations by not killing off too many species, or changing the climate too much, so they can enjoy Creation as we do. This is "environmental justice," where pursuing justice (Deuteronomy 16:20) for people means safeguarding their/our environment, now and forever. And what about being "of service" to Creation itself?

Gemilut Hasadim

Literally "acts of loving-kindness", gemilut hasadim brings us to concrete actions. If Eco-Torah means "learn it", and Eco-Avodah means "love it", then Eco-Gemilut-Hasadim means "live it!" There's no shortage of specific things we can (and in the language of Jewish law, halacha, should) do to live that ecologically conscious Jewish life:

* Tza'ar ba'alei hayim, kindness to animals: Judaism teaches us to put the needs of our animals even before our own. It starts with pets and domesticated animals, but can also include wildlife. Today this and related values might even suggest vegetarianism (see Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name).

* Eco-Zionism, protecting the Eretz (land) of Yisrael: That small, densely populated, sacred land is being overused and abused. Our love for Israel and passion for Creation can unite through supporting environmental efforts in our homeland.

* Eco-Kashrut, a meta-ethics of Jewish consumption: Items are either "acceptable" (kosher) or "not OK" (treif), based on a set of ritual-ethical-spiritual laws. Yet narrowly speaking, styrofoam plates are kosher. We can apply kashrut to how food was produced and how it's served, and from there expand it from food and drink to oil, forest management, corporations and governments.

* Bal Tashhit, forbidding wanton waste: a wartime prohibition against cutting down enemy's trees (Deuteronomy 20:19) suggests that all needless waste is an affront to God. In a 13th century text (Sefer Hahinukh 529), righteous people grieve when even a mustard seed is wasted. Does our waste -- greenhouse gas emissions, non-composted garbage, vacuous TV programs -- pass "the mustard seed test?"

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Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.